It is a measure of the exhilarating 2012 season so far that the sport’s battle-hardened experts were surprised on Saturday.
In the centre of the official post-qualifying press conference sat Sebastian Vettel, the reigning back to back world champion and pole master. But Red Bull, and the formerly-dominant 24-year-old German in particular, have had a tough start to the new season, leaving him without a pole in 2012 until Bahrain.
It is clear he had stopped counting.
“31?” Vettel exclaimed as a reporter updated his pole tally. “Sh*t!”
On Sunday, he will also try to open his 2012 account of race wins, and if he succeeds he will be the sixth different grand prix victor in as many races.
Dating back to Abu Dhabi last year, when Lewis Hamilton won, the next four races were all won by another different driver — Mark Webber, Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso and Nico Rosberg.
Vettel hasn’t won since India 2011.
“I have had a good feeling about the car from first practice (in Bahrain),” admitted Red Bull’s designer Adrian Newey, who has watched the RB8 beaten by McLaren, Mercedes and even the struggling Ferrari since the new season began.
But, arguably, F1 on race-day Bahrain is less predictable than ever before.
“I wouldn’t bet on anyone,” Button, fourth on the grid, is quoted by Brazil’s O Estado de S.Paulo.
“When the track conditions or the weather chances, it influences the performance of the cars like never before. It’s almost like a game of chance,” said the Briton.
Indeed – as McLaren has arguably the best car overall, Sauber has shown winning pace, Mercedes broke through in China and Red Bull is back on top in Bahrain – predicting Sunday’s winner does seem like the spinning of a roulette wheel.
“He (Vettel) is pushing hard but the competition is tough with the McLarens, the Mercedes, the Lotus,” former grand prix driver Patrick Tambay told RMC Sport.
“On Sunday I see six potential winners, and there will be surprises. It’ll be a fight like that until at least the middle of the season,” said the Frenchman.
“It’s very open, with a lot of wolves in the pack of contenders,” added Tambay.